Back in 2004, Google launched “Google Print” and the “Library Project,” the early stage iterations of what would eventually become its Google Books program. It began as partnerships between the company and rights holders who wanted select information relevant to their materials to be “hosted” online, as well as a number of major libraries wishing to digitize their book collections. Since its inception, Google Books has scanned and converted over 20 million books and periodicals into digital, searchable files. Almost immediately after the program began, the company came under fire from the Authors Guild, who argued that Google’s digitization of copyrighted works without the owners’ permission constituted copyright infringement. (Google settled a similar case last year with a group of publishers who took issue with the company’s book-scanning practices.)
On November 14th of this year, a judge finally brought the long-running Authors Guild case to rest, deciding in favor of Google. New York federal court Judge Denny Chin assessed the multiple factors involved in determining whether or not something was to be considered “fair use,” and ruled that the Google Books program and its methods did, indeed, fall within those guidelines. Furthermore, he emphasized that the project served to benefit society as a whole. Not only does it assist in preserving old or rare volumes that might be in danger of disappearing from shelves altogether; on a more basic level, readers, researchers and librarians use Google Books as an educational tool, and not as a replacement for buying books, he explained.
At face value, it is reasonable to be concerned that the existence of exact digital copies of books might present a risk that the actual books would no longer be purchased, or even “necessary.” However, per the judge’s opinion, there are multiple reasons why there is no real danger of that fear coming to fruition. Firstly, the security measures employed by Google prevent anyone from being able to piece together the search tool’s “snippet” results into a complete book; certain sections are “blacklisted,” ensuring that even the most determined researcher could not access an entire work via strategic querying. Secondly, many feel that these snippets actually serve as free advertising for the books they represent, functioning similarly to the “sneak peak” feature that often appears in Amazon.com’s book-selling section, for example. Potential readers (aka buyers) can use Google Books to search for a specific passage or particular topic in which they are interested, and be directed to precisely the volume that they need, at which point they can go ahead and buy the actual book.
Even in instances where Google scans and makes available an entire work for a particular library, the Court found that this still falls under the category of “fair use,” as the library already owns the book itself, and merely makes use of the digital copies for purposes that “advance the progress of the arts and sciences” and aid in accessibility for the visually-impaired and other underserved populations. To be sure, Google’s ultimate goal (as with any other company) is to make money. But since they are not selling the actual images of the books they are digitizing—even though they neither request authorization from nor offer compensation to the copyright holders of those works—there is no issue of their unlawfully profiting from material that they neither create nor own.
The Authors Guild plans to appeal the judge’s ruling, no doubt concerned that such a precedent might encourage abuse of the “fair use” statute by other companies. Meanwhile, Google Books hopes for a similar judgment in their favor in a complaint currently being brought against them by a photographers’ trade group.